With my laissez-faire approach to dog-walking, there’s a lot of down time. Sure, go ahead and sniff that. But of course, stop and stare at this if you like. Why not lie down in the middle of the street and refuse to budge? Who am I to disrupt these principled protests of a Bartlebyesque nature?
I am generally happy to wait patiently for forward progress to resume, though I often yearn for some distraction during these lulls. One morning, heading out for a walk, a bright idea came to me. I could combine my two passions: standing idle beside my dog, alert or prostrate as she may be, and reading. Surely the dog’s leisurely investigations would allow me plenty of time to speed through a novel. I therefore tucked a copy of Suzanne Berne’s latest, The Dogs of Littlefield, under my arm before being tugged out the door by my basset hound, eager as always to make her mark in the world — and smell the marks other dogs had already made.
Before we had made it a block, I had breezed through the novel’s opening chapter, in which a boisterous lab puppy, Binx, breaks away from his owner and follows his nose to a gruesome discovery in the nearby woods: the corpse of a bullmastiff. The “bloodied, yellowish foam” around its muzzle indicates that the bullmastiff has been poisoned, perhaps by the person who had been putting up menacing, anti-dog flyers around the affluent Massachusetts town of Littlefield. (“Leash Your Beast Or Else.”) Or perhaps the pooch could have ingested poison meant for the town’s coyote population? More terrifying, it could simply be an act of motiveless malignity.
I instantly pegged the culprit as a character from another Berne novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, a chilling tale about a child’s overheated imagination. When a 12-year-old boy is raped and murdered in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., a young girl suspects her next door neighbor, Mr. Green, of the heinous deed and other crimes to boot: “I think he puts out poison for dogs…He wants the Morrises’ dogs to eat the poison if they pee on his lawn.”
Solved! Here, plain as day, was our dog poisoner. I turned to share this theory with my basset hound — Colombo had one too, incidentally — only to find her attention distracted by the impressive leavings from the neighborhood’s St. Bernard. (“Pick up after Your dog. Aren’t You Ashamed that You Don’t?” reads one of the anonymous signs posted around Littlefield.)
Onward then, with the walk and Berne’s novel, which gently satirizes Littlefield, a town that ranks sixth on the Wall Street Journal’s list of the best places to live in America, possibly because its residents are so well-medicated. Littlefield is home to one percent of the country’s psychotherapists, one of whom opines that the dog-killer is “in the grip of a narcissistic ideation…trying to control all his fears by killing what he believes to be the source of them.”
Several more of Littlefield’s titular dogs had died by the time my hound and I reached the local park. I was consequently on edge, looking up from my reading every time the basset burrowed her snout into some fresh, and potentially poisoned, filth. I usually dismiss every passerby who doesn’t stop to fawn over my dog as morally, aesthetically, and spiritually bankrupt, but now I detected something sinister in their indifference, something potentially indicative of canicidal tendencies. It was still dark out, which lent the neighborhood the same vaguely ominous atmosphere as Berne’s Littlefield, its houses “float[ing] behind their shadowy shrubs and walkways, hushed, battened, as mysterious and provisional as ships moored in a dark harbor.”
I hastened to the local park, dragging along my reluctant basset, who, not being able to read, didn’t understand the source of my anxiety. Once there, I took refuge in the dog-walking community, the “small battalion of regulars” with whom I regularly exchanged pet-related banter. I knew their dogs’ names but not theirs. They knew my dog but neither my name nor, depressingly, my face. When my stepbrother dog-sat for me last summer, he told me that the owners of Argus and Molly, two women whom I saw on a daily basis, had approached him in the park and begun chatting with him quite familiarly. After several minutes, he realized that they had simply spotted the basset hound and assumed the indistinct mass on the other end of her leash was the usual walker, that is, me. My stepbrother felt duty-bound to enlighten them.
“You do realize I’m not Matt, right?”
They had not.
The dog walkers in Berne’s novel are, by contrast, socially entwined. At the very least, they would be able to identify one another in a lineup. There is Margaret Downing, an “ordinary yet oddly disquieting” housewife trying to salvage her marriage to a distant husband. She is plagued by suburban ennui and intermittent bouts of dread, usually accompanied by spectral visions of a prowling dog. Margaret begins an affair with George Wechsler, owner of the unfortunate bullmastiff and the author of a “mystical Jewish baseball novel. Talmudic references mixed with mediations on the aerodynamics of the knuckleball.” Observing them, and everyone else, is Clarice Watkins, a black newcomer to the mostly-white town. A visiting academic, she walks her dog in billowing caftans and turns out to be conducting a sociological study on Littlefield. Its title: “Never Enough: Toward a Sociocultural Theory of Trained Incapacity and Discontent in an American Middle-Class Village and the Effects of Global Destabilization on Conceptualizations of Good Quality of Life.”
There are other characters of varying eccentricity, each of whom I found infinitely more appealing than the married couple I soon bumped into near the center of the park. At the sight of my basset, their French bulldog strained at the leash. This display of excitement did not please the wife, who used the pauses between her barked, unheeded commands to hurl imprecations at her husband, who had stubbornly refused to send the dog to obedience school during its formative years.
I had witnessed this same marital drama several times before, once even venturing my opinion that obedience schools were fascist, a statement that perplexed husband, wife, and bulldog alike. All was quiet for a moment before their chorus of growling and recriminations resumed. This time, I calmly flipped to page 30 of The Dogs of Littlefield, quoted George Wechsler — “All dogs are anarchists at heart” — and headed off.
Leaving the bickering couple, I next saluted a young man I hadn’t seen before, my basset hound gaily greeting his greyhound. Watching the mismatched pair sniff each other, one regally gaunt, the other majestically squat, I commenced the pleasantries.
“Mine’s thinking, ‘What a funny looking dog!’”
He huffily replied that he thought my dog was in fact the funny looking one. Sensing I had come across a specimen of homo unironicus, I tried a new approach.
“If only my basset’s legs were as long as her ears, she could keep up with yours.”
This went over slightly better. His tone switched from offended to patronizing.
“I doubt that. Greyhounds are very fast. They are racing dogs you know.”
Looking for a quick exit, I held up The Dogs of Littlefield.
“I’m really enjoying this book. It’s about a dog who gets poisoned in a quiet neighborhood park very much like this one.”
As the man and his dog sprinted away — the greyhound really was impressively fast — I resumed reading. By now it was clear that, as with her previous novels, Berne was not interested in following the dictates of a conventional mystery. (“A clue, Mom?” mocks a teenage boy when his mother casts herself as amateur sleuth, “What are you, Sherlock Holmes?”) The perpetrator’s identity matters less than the crime’s psychological ramifications, its “assault” on the “equilibrium” of the supposedly placid Littlefield. One character calls the poisonings a “domestic fear campaign.” Another argues that “the dogs are a symptom of a more systemic problem” with the town’s governance. The sociologist Dr. Watkins concludes that Littlefield’s reaction to the incidents has revealed the fundamental unhappiness of its supposedly happy, and privileged, population:
…they were afraid of everything. They projected their fears onto everything. Everything they could do nothing about, but had the wit to recognize. The whole world surrounded them: a black forest crawling with beasts and creatures, phantoms, monsters.
Discovering the villain’s motive and method will therefore not restore order to the community. Because there is something endemically infecting the town psyche, the resolution to the mystery cannot dispel the lingering unease in Littlefield, “strangely infatuated with the idea of menace” as it is.
But I was getting ahead of myself. I had not even reached the end of the novel yet. My basset, perhaps sensing my desire to finish the captivating book, brusquely yanked me over to a bench. Witnessing this, a smug park-goer saw fit to make the following observation.
“You’re not walking your dog. Your dog’s walking you!”
Ha, ha, yes, well put. I met the man’s aperçu with a self-deprecating laugh, all the while wishing he would walk himself straight into a ditch.
I sat down to read the last pages of The Dogs of Littlefield, the comic passages becoming less frequent as the novel dissected the ineradicable unhappiness of the aptly named Downing family.
My basset hound, who had been taking one of her 36 daily naps, stirred. I watched her begin to greet the world anew, grateful for each scent, responsive to the slightest movement or the faintest sound. Dogs, it was true, “reminded you of the basic joy of being alive, which, God knows, was easy to forget.”
Across the park, two frolicking mutts had been let off-leash in blatant violation of the numerous posted signs. I was tempted, but hadn’t I just read a novel about the perils of unattended pets? “Leash Your Beast Or Else.” Moreover, my basset hound never obeyed my calls, would follow any ungodly smell to its more ungodly source, and routinely tripped over her stubby little legs, or ground-kissing ears, when attempting to keep up with swifter dogs.
But what the hell? The novel had another message as well: “The pursuit of happiness should be a dog’s right too. Like humans, dogs needed a chance once in a while to be free.”
Reader, I unleashed her.